Alyaksandr Kazulin squared off against Alyaksandr Lukashenka in the 2006 presidential race before being thrown in jail as a prisoner of conscience. While in jail, he endured a 56-day hunger strike and the death from cancer of his wife, Iryna. Now free, he has become one of the most vocal critics of Lukashenka and attempts by the EU to bring Belarus into the Western fold. In an interview with RFE/RL's Brian Whitmore, Kazulin said many of the Eastern European countries who now support Minsk's integration in the EU's Eastern Partnership program are "forgetting" about the totalitarian crimes they themselves endured in earlier eras.
RFE/RL: I would like to start with a tragic event that was in the news recently. The human rights activist Yana Palyakova committed suicide earlier this month after being convicted of slandering a police officer whom she accused of beating her. What does this say about the current state of affairs in Belarus?
Alyaksandr Kazulin: I think this shows the conditions people are living in. If a young woman cannot find any way out other than to kill herself, it means that she was led to this. It is obvious that she was baited. Those police officers who filed suit against her in court, the judge who ruled in her case, the atmosphere that existed around the case, the articles denouncing her in our main newspaper, "Sovietskaya Belorussia," baited her. They baited her because of her principles, her convictions, the ideals she believed in.
RFE/RL: Palyakova worked on your behalf when you were incarcerated. How did her death effect you personally?
Kazulin: For me personally this is a big wound, a wound that screams. And this scream comes from the soul. But nobody wants to hear this scream from our souls, this pain in our hearts. Often people forget how they lived earlier. The Czechs are forgetting about 1968, the Prague Spring, and the Velvet Revolution. The Poles are forgetting about Solidarity, the Germans are forgetting about fascism. But what is happening today in Belarus already happened to them.
Too Quick To Talk?
RFE/RL: You have been critical of the European Union's recent overtures to Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka regarding the European Partnership initiative. Are you opposed to Brussels' policy toward Belarus in general?
Kazulin: No normal person can be opposed to dialogue, cooperation, and aspirations to make the situation better. But no normal person should seek to achieve this goal by any means. The Europeans understand that their policy of the last 15 years toward Lukashenka hasn't resulted in anything good, so now they're pursuing a new policy. But they are rushing to achieve a result. For 15 years there were no results, and now they want one in half a year.
RFE/RL: What specifically do you not like about the way this process is proceeding?
Kazulin: It would be one thing if the last dictator in Europe changed and said, "Citizens of Europe, People from Humane Countries, forgive me, I have recognized my mistakes." But what is happening is just the opposite. Belarusian television is saying that it is the Europeans who have recognized their mistakes. They are saying that Belarus was right.
So when we talk about a dialogue, what are we talking about? Negotiations behind closed doors between the European Union and the Belarusian political regime. But there needs to be a [wider] discussion in which civil and democratic society also participates. The only people at the table now are the Belarusian authorities and EU officials. Members of the democratic community are not participating. So who will evaluate the results?
RFE/RL: I also understand that you thought it was a bad idea for EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana to visit Belarus [onFebruary 19]. What were your objections to this visit?
Kazulin: Solana's visit came following harsh political repression. There was the arrest of former political prisoners who had been released. There was the beating of young people on St. Valentine's Day. They beat up girls, broke boys' ribs and gave them concussion, and then on February 16 -- on the day of Solidarity With Missing Persons and Political Prisoners -- there was also a violent dispersal [of demonstrators].
But Mr. Solana did not cancel his visit. He could have delayed it by seven or 10 days for moral reasons. OK, Solana is an experienced politician and maybe he knows things we don't know. But after he met with Lukashenka, there was no commentary.
So this leads to the question: For whose sake did Mr. Solana come, Lukashenka or the Belarusian people? If he came for Mr. Lukashenka, then this is a victory for the dictator. This is a huge political event for Lukashenka.
If he came for the Belarusian people -- who expected European values to come to Belarus as a result of his visit -- then why was nothing said about the repression that took place on the eve of his visit? He said he was optimistic. And Lukashenka said he was very satisfied with Mr. Solana's visit since no conditions were placed on him. So this leads to the question: What kind of values is Europe offering us?
Europe 'Under Thumb' Of Lukashenka
RFE/RL: On March 16, the European Union extended an existing travel ban and asset freeze on 41 top Belarusian politicians and officials for another year. But on the other, Brussels extended a suspension of that same travel ban for nine months. What is your opinion of this decision?
Kazulin: They have prolonged the suspension of sanctions. So consider this: If a judge knowingly condemns an innocent man and is not sanctioned, then he will feel he has carte blanche to continue doing this. If a police officer beats citizens and is not removed for this, then he will think he has carte blanche to act this way again. So when Solana's visit comes in the wake of repression, and the re-arrest of political prisoners, then the Lukashenka regime will think it has carte blanche to behave this way.
Of course a dialogue is necessary, but a dialogue is a compromise where two sides meet. There are conditions from the Belarusian side and there are also conditions from the EU that lead to a plan of action. But for the past six months there have been no conditions [placed on Belarus], and all experts and analysts say that nothing is changing in Belarus. There have been cosmetic changes, but nothing more, there is no systemic change.
Therefore, strong Europe is now under the thumb of the weak Lukashenka. It is useful to remember the 1930s, when strong Europe went under the thumb of the weak Hitler. And what was the result of that?
RFE/RL: Do you think the EU's policy toward Belarus has implications for other countries in the region?
Kazulin: We are not just talking about Belarus here. We are talking about all of Europe. To what extent is it prepared to act according to the values that are the foundation of the common European home? What is more important? Morality? Citizens' rights and freedoms? Values? Or the pragmatism and commercial interests that today we call realpolitik? Everybody is waiting for an answer to this question. Because if Europe is going to capitulate before a dictator, then it means that something is wrong with European values.
East And West
RFE/RL: Some analysts have suggested that there are larger geopolitical forces at work here and what Europe is really trying to do is to pull Belarus free from Russia's sphere of influence.
Kazulin: On every level, Russia is being used as a kind of scarecrow -- so people say, "We need to save Belarus from Russia." And Mr. Lukashenka is a master of blackmail.
With Europe and Russia, he is trying to see who will give him the most. Imagine a hypothetical situation where Russia, Germany, and Poland divide Belarus's economy among themselves. Everybody would be satisfied. Capital would come in. There would be jobs. Lukashenka would announce that in his office safe he has the shares of all the enterprises in Belarus. Let's do business.
Well, we need to call things by their proper names. This is a pragmatic trade-off in which the rights and freedoms of citizens are given no consideration. There are only the interests of money. There are just financial, economic, and commercial interests, but nothing else. In such a situation, we would need to forget about our values.
This is a very serious issue. They are trading with our lives, our fates. They are throwing us underneath the tanks. This is something Europeans have forgotten about. Today we are underneath tanks.
RFE/RL: There is a possibility that Alyaksandr Lukashenka could be invited to Prague to attend the May 7 summit dealing with the EU's Eastern Partnership program. What does the Belarusian opposition think about this possibility?
Kazulin: I can say firmly that 90 percent of the Belarusian democratic community is absolutely and categorically opposed to Lukashenka's visit to Prague. They see this as a betrayal -- a betrayal of an entire people by Europe. This needs to be clearly understood.
RFE/RL: Let's end with a prediction. You have said several times that Lukashenka's position is actually weaker than it appears. He has been in power for more than 15 years. How much longer do you think he has left?
Kazulin: As an academic, as a philosopher, I can say that everything in the world finds balance. When there is a lot of evil and injustice, then in the end the pendulum swings in the opposite direction.
Today Lukashenka is holding back that pendulum with all his strength. But this won't be enough. The pendulum will swing the other way. I am absolutely certain that changes will come to Belarus in the next two years.
The global economic crisis is a moment of truth for the Belarusian authorities. Our administrative command economy is something from the past. And Mr. Lukashenka runs the government as if it were a collective farm.
We are in the same situation that the Soviet Union was in just prior to the breakup. And nobody predicted that that would happen. But it was possible because the giant turned out to be a man on stilts, and it is the same now. The Europeans can decide what to do, but history always returns to its proper place.